• Hungary’s national referendum
  • Racist state propaganda, migration policy and authoritarianism

  • By Anja Svobodovna | 17 Oct 16 | Posted under: Central and Eastern Europe , Hungary , Antiracism/Migration
  • On 2 October, a national referendum was held on the EU’s refugee quota system and Hungarian migration policy, in a climate dominated by racist state propaganda. While an overwhelming majority of voters rejected the EU's migrant quotas (98%), turnout was too low (43%) to render the poll valid. The government is still calling the referendum a success and wants to amend the Constitution accordingly.

    The referendum and the formulation of the referendum question, the smear campaign in the run-up to the referendum and the measures taken afterwards represent a new high in racist and authoritarian politics.

    ‘Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?’ – This was the cynical question posed by the referendum. The turnout of 43% was, however, far from the 50% threshold required for the referendum to be valid.

    Racist state propaganda

    The months and weeks leading up to the referendum were characterised by a large-scale governmental campaign, which the Hungarian philosopher Gáspár Miklós Támas referred to as ‘the largest wave of racist propaganda since the end of World War II’[1]. More than €32 million in public funds was spent on posters, brochures, ‘information’ stands, giveaways and personal phone calls (conducted by civil servants ordered to do so) to persuade the people to vote ‘no’ and – as the government put it – ‘to send Brussels a message and put an end to the threat posed by immigration to Hungary’s future’. Unsubstantiated claims were made in order to underline the necessity of obtaining a ‘strong no’, for example, that ‘undocumented immigrants do not respect European norms, including women’s rights’, that ‘since the beginning of the immigration crisis, the incidence of harassment cases has dramatically increased’ and that ‘the Paris and Brussels attacks prove that there is a clear link between immigration and terrorism’[2].

    The extent of the state’s propaganda and its unveiled racism was overwhelming, but it did not come as a surprise. Last year, commencing with the construction of the fence that closed the border to Serbia, increasingly restrictive amendments to laws were passed to deny people access to international protection, systematically cancel benefits for refugees and legitimise police violence at the borders[3].

    Option 1: EU forced resettlement

    The referendum was held in reaction to the ‘emergency relocation’ of 160,000 refugees (as proposed by the ‘European Agenda on Migration’[4]) from particularly affected EU member states to other member states. This agenda is also to serve as a model for future ‘crisis situations’. While Hungary – together with Greece and Italy – was originally on the list of countries from which refugees would have been taken and resettled elsewhere, the number of people granted access to Hungary’s asylum procedure dropped so dramatically (due to the fence and increasingly restrictive asylum laws) that Hungary became one of the quota system’s ‘recipient countries’.

    This EU-proposed quota system, however, only concerns asylum applicants who are fleeing from countries recognised by at least 75% of EU member states, therefore excluding the majority of people – all those not fleeing from Eritrea or Syria. Even though the personal abilities and social relationships of the relocated people play – to a certain degree – a part in the relocation process, it is clear that these countries’ perception of migrants as a ‘burden’ (which must be fairly distributed between EU member states) is what is most central to these stipulations. Refugees are not perceived as individuals with goals, desires and a political voice, but as a burden to be randomly transferred from one place to another.

    In short, the quota system is a mechanism of forced relocation which cements the distribution of migrants. In the meantime, conditions for refugees in the member states are not improving. Hierarchy and exclusion is reproduced along the lines of nationality and neoliberally exploitable ‘abilities’.

    Hence, the referendum only gave Hungarians a choice between this extremely problematic quota system and the affirmation of the asylum policy implemented by the Hungarian government in recent years.

    Option 2: Hungarian isolation policy

    Last year’s restrictions to asylum policy have further added to the hardship experienced by migrants in Hungary: applicants in the asylum process face systematic internment and the frequent re-evaluation and cancellation of asylum statuses. This could lead to deportation or the cancellation of the so-called ‘integration agreement’, which provided at least some financial support in Hungary after the granting of asylum for those without any entitlement to financial assistance. Those granted asylum without being entitled to financial assistance, housing or language courses are forced to leave the country due to a lack of alternatives.

    These trends are not restricted to Hungarian politics. Similar amendments to legislation are being passed in many EU member states. These trends are also reflected in the EU’s deadly border management and the Commission’s plans to develop an extremely restrictive asylum system which is coordinated on an EU level and similar to the Hungarian model[5]. The Hungarian government can already conduct such policies in an unveiled and illegitimate way. This fact is illustrated by the systematic violence used by the Hungarian police against people entering Hungary via the Serbian border and the ongoing political show trials (Röske11) which are criminalising freedom of movement and protests in solidarity with those who fall within the wide scope of anti-terrorism legislation[6].

    Protests and the invalidation of the referendum

    Critical initiatives succeeded in mobilising a wave of people to boycott the referendum in order to render it invalid. The initiatives criticised the symbolic choice between two ‘alternatives’ that were, at their core, equally inhuman – the EU quota system vs. Hungary’s isolation policy. They criticised the large-scale employment of propaganda and the use of public funds for the referendum. They also showed their frustration with the overall political situation in Hungary. Aside from parody campaigns by the ‘Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party’, a satire party which ridiculed the government’s referendum posters, alliances between various organisations and groups were also formed, organising common protests.

    The number of invalid votes (which were frequently rendered invalid in highly creative ways and shared on social media[7]) amounted to 6-7%. This high rate is particularly remarkable considering the fact that abstentions had the same effect on the result as invalid votes. It is also all the more frustrating that the government is clearly not subtracting this percentage from the overall approval rate (98%).

    Authoritarianism: success rhetoric and constitutional amendments

    It was clear that the Fidesz government was not trying to find a way to democratically influence EU politics with this referendum; this had already been illustrated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s own voting behaviour. In February, when the European Council voted on the EU-proposed quota system, Orbán voted in favour.[8] Using the topics of migration policy and ‘security’ as a channel to attract voters to right-wing populism and to reorganise the state along authoritarian lines, is a common strategy in Europe. This strategy, however, is something the Orbán administration uses very frequently.

    The fact that such authoritarian reorganisation processes are actually happening has been illustrated by the scandalous shutdown of left-wing media criticising the government, such as the daily newspaper Népszabadság[9], and the government’s application to amend the Constitution despite the invalidation of the referendum. Using the ‘threat of terrorism’ and the ‘resounding success of 98% in favour of Hungarian sovereignty in matters pertaining to refugees’ as justifications, the Constitution will be modified in such a way that the ‘protection of Hungarian identity’ will be codified ‘as a fundamental duty of the state’ and EU requirements will only be fulfilled when ‘Hungary’s sovereignty concerning territorial integrity, its population, form of government and governmental structure’ is not limited.[10]

    The referendum, or – more precisely – the smear campaign against so-called ‘illegal migrants’, according to the government, has fulfilled its purpose and strengthened the Fidesz government’s position of power. It has drawn attention away from widespread problems in the Hungarian health, education and social systems and strengthened Hungary’s negotiating position in the EU context. The racist use of the migration question to promote authoritarian politics is, however, particularly absurd when looking at the extremely low number of refugees who are offered the opportunity to live in Hungary in the first place, despite numerous physical and legal barriers.[11]


    [1]Gáspár Miklós Támas: Anti-Immigration Referendum Sunday in Hungary, in: Open Democracy, 02/10/2016. https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/g-m-tam-s/anti-immigration-referendum-sunday-in-hungary

    [2] An English translation of a brochure sent to all households was published by the The Budapest Beacon, 07/09/2016. http://budapestbeacon.com/featured-articles/we-must-stop-brussels-referendum-booklet-warns-hungariThans/38777

    [3] Regular updates on Hungarian politics and its impact are published on the blog of the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary (Migszol), in the category Migszol-Update: http://www.migszol.com/blog/category/migszol-update

    [5] The asylum system as planned by the European Commission will be coordinated on an EU level and involves, among others, the following: 1) the abolition of permanent refugee status through repeated status re-evaluation, 2) a restrictive approach to the granting of asylum via the introduction of standard checks regarding ‘internal flight alternatives’, 3) massive restrictions to freedom of movement within the EU by making secondary migration from one member state to another harder and 4) encouraging the systematic use of detention in the asylum procedure: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-2433_en.htm

    [6]For further information on the Röske processes consult the following website: http://freetheroszke11.weebly.com/. The main defendant, Ahmad H., is being accused of terrorism because he took part in the protests at the border and may face life imprisonment.

    [7] One of the numerous photo galleries featuring examples of invalid votes: http://index.hu/belfold/2016/10/02/kvotareferendum_ervenytelen_szavazatok/

    [8] The Budapest Beacon: Tusk: Orbán voted for refugee resettlement quotas in European Council, 05/10/2016. http://budapestbeacon.com/politics/tusk-orban-voted-for-refugee-resettlement-quotas-in-european-council/40344

    [9] Please find further information on the shutdown of Népszabadság and other newspapers here: https://www.ft.com/content/1f15cc30-8d5e-11e6-a72e-b428cb934b78

    [10]The Budapest Beacon published a detailed list of the planned amendments: http://budapestbeacon.com/news-in-brief/orban-submits-constitutional-modification-proposal/40585

    [11]Due to insufficient documentation, there is no official data regarding the number of people with refugee status living in Hungary. In 2016, until now, roughly 300 people have been granted refugee status. In previous years, this number amounted to 500. Due to the complete lack of financial and social support for recognised refugees, the overall number of all refugees permanently residing in Hungary amounts to a maximum of approximately 1,000 or 2,000 people.

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